This year’s Empowerment Award will honor the collaboration between the Asian American Resource Workshop (AARW) and the Asian Outreach Project at Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS) in responding to escalated deportation action against Southeast Asian refugee and immigrant communities by raising public awareness, mounting a legal defense campaign, and building community networks and organizing power.
The partnership began two years ago in response to increased immigration raids and deportations affecting Massachusetts’ Cambodian and Vietnamese communities. In the face of an intensified threat of deportation actions uprooting lives and separating families, Kevin Lam, Organizing Director at AARW, recalled, “It wasn’t a question of whether we were going to respond and organize; we were going to respond, and we needed to figure out how to build and sustain capacity for long-term organizing around this issue.”
The answer came in the form of a collaboration between AARW and GBLS to build a strategy that leverages the strengths of both community organizing and community lawyering. During the first several months of the project, AARW and GBLS gathered information from the community to assess the impact of the raids and the needs of those at-risk of deportation. Organizers have undertaken a number of projects in response, such as issuing a multilingual “community alert” in English, Vietnamese and Khmer to make community members aware of the heightened risk of deportation and of the resources available to them; accompanying impacted people and their loved ones to ICE check-ins; hosting community meetings and dinners to build relationships and reduce the isolation and stigma that can accompany the threat of deportation; fundraising for families that have been destabilized by losing a family member to detention or deportation; and organizing local actions and coordinated national actions in response to Southeast Asian deportation. Through a community lawyering model, GBLS’s Asian Outreach Project has provided legal advocacy for immigration relief, offering advice, representation, and referrals through clinics in Dorchester and Lowell.
The organizations have also collaborated to respond to enforcement actions with a blended community organizing and legal defense strategy. For example, during a recent enforcement action against local Cambodian residents, when people with final deportation orders were summoned to report to ICE, AARW helped organize advocates and community members to gather outside the ICE office to show public support for those facing potential detention and deportation; the legal team, meanwhile, evaluated possibilities for relief and stood by ready to file habeas petitions if people were detained. Ultimately, many who had been summoned were not detained by ICE.
The project has focused on raising public awareness about the issue of Southeast Asian deportation. In doing so, project leaders are reframing public discourse about immigration. Lam stated, “We are working to push back on the narrative of the ‘good/bad immigrant,’ who is or isn’t deserving. The Refugee Resettlement program placed many of our community members into impoverished neighborhoods that were under-resourced and over-policed. Resettling and trying to restabilize, the Southeast Asian community faced anti-Asian sentiment, and through gangs some people found a source of community, protection and support with each other. As young people, some community members made mistakes, were arrested and served their time, and have since transformed their lives. But policies that explicitly criminalized and targeted Black and brown communities in the 1990s also affected Southeast Asian people. These policies enabled the creation of a prison-to-deportation pipeline that Southeast Asian community members were funneled into, which is now targeting our community for deportation. Many of the people who have made mistakes are now parents and have started families, are working to support their families, and have rebuilt a sense of community in the U.S. It’s important to remember that the reason why the Southeast Asian community is here in this country is because of U.S. intervention over there during the war. Immigrant communities are not criminals, but have been criminalized, and we need to shift this narrative.”
While both AARW and GBLS focus primarily on Greater Boston, people from across Massachusetts and the New England region have received support from the project. Importantly, the organizers have worked to empower families and community members that the project has supported in becoming leaders and spokespeople for the organizing effort. Bethany Li, Senior Staff Attorney and Director of the Asian Outreach Project at GBLS, noted that this is consistent with her program’s community lawyering model, explaining, “It’s really about following the lead of the organizers and the community, and acknowledging that change isn’t going to happen just because we file a legal case, but that the legal work is part of the broader community effort in organizing for change.”
In speaking about why the collaboration between AARW and GBLS’s Asian Outreach Project has been successful, Li added, “We have the same values. We are community-oriented, community-focused, community-built. And it is impacted families and individuals who are leading this effort.”
Of receiving the Empowerment Award, Lam said, “AARW is honored to be recognized in our partnership with GBLS to receive the Empowerment Award from the Boston Bar Association. For the past two years, we have been organizing against the mass detentions and deportations targeting the Southeast Asian community, both in Massachusetts, and across the country. Receiving this award reaffirms that there are others who see the work we are doing and care, and that people are noticing the incremental change we are making regarding Southeast Asian deportations. We recognize these incremental changes as part of a larger fight to shift the immigration narrative, and as momentum that fuels our energy to continue fighting for justice and liberation for and with the Southeast Asian community against deportations.”